Silly season or time to buy?

The N-reg plates arrive next week and the motor trade goes mad.
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The Independent Culture
FIRST, the bad news. Next Tuesday is 1 August, the day when the new N-reg plates arrive and the motor trade goes into a feeding frenzy. Sales of new cars in the month of August account for about a quarter of the annual figure, which last year meant 452,000 vehicles out of a total of two million. The value of August sales this year is estimated at pounds 4.5bn for the industry as a whole.

In this late-summer sales offensive, offensive is perhaps the operative word. This is the only time of year when there's anything like a seller's market, and the traders are there with a host of cut-price offers, financing deals and other incentives. If you don't like them, hundreds of others might.

The good news is that manufacturers often put off raising prices until autumn - so now is the time to buy. And there are some attractive deals around registration day: a year's free insurance, for example, is offered on some Fords. Here are some ground rules for getting the best August bargains.

RESEARCH: The crucial starting point; boring, if you'd sooner have your teeth pulled than spend an evening reading car magazines. But if you want to secure the best car for your needs at the lowest price, it's the only way. Check the motoring mags for the current price of the car you want, and the one you're cashing in. Remember the magic words "price to change" - the figure that really matters. It's the difference between the value of your trade-in car and the one you're after. That's what you want a dealer to quote on - the lower the better.

CUSTOMER STATUS: Even in August, manufacturers of mainstream cars (luxury models have different rules) still have more vehicles cluttering up their real estate than they have buyers. So if you don't like what you're offered, don't feel pressurised. And don't be shy about putting the heat on a dealer by quoting terms you've been offered elsewhere. Outside the luxury class, most new cars are flexibly priced and competition between retailers is part of the game. Always ask for a discount.

SPRUCE UP YOUR TRADE-IN-CAR: A little elbow grease and a vacuum cleaner never do any harm, even when selling through a dealer. If you can bear the extra hassle, sell your car privately. It always raises more cash, but there are a few things to remember: don't ask a silly price; make sure you have all the servicing and MOT paperwork to lubricate the deal; and don't let the prospective buyer nick the car, or drive it uninsured.

ESTABLISH YOUR NEEDS: These include whether items such as alloy wheels and sunroofs can be thrown in as part of the deal, or exist on a standard model, rather than having to be fitted afterwards. Flashy extras can be expensive now, and will depreciate quicker than the car itself.

HAVE A PROPER TEST-DRIVE: Don't say "yes" just because you like the pattern on the upholstery. Look out for comfort at the wheel and at the pedals; visibility; steering feel; storage capacity; passenger space; and safety factors.

CONSIDER DEPRECIATION: The bane of all new-car buyers. People-carriers hold their value; so do superminis like the VW Polo or Fiat Punto. Executive cars don't - unless they have a three-pointed star on the front. Dealer- demonstration models - or recent low-mileage cars disposed of by fleets and rental companies - can be very attractive; they are sold through high- street dealers, too.

LOOK INTO FINANCE OPTIONS: Car companies now offer their own finance arrangements, which you can compare with your bank's. Remember that nought per cent interest, though it looks like a giveaway, is balanced against discount and deposit levels. On some in-demand luxury cars haggling with the finance company may be about the only way you can reduce the list price.

THE SHORT CUT: If you can't be bothered with all this, consider using a new-car broker; he will scour the land for exactly the car you want - at the best price - delivered anywhere in the UK. He will also arrange for after-sales care at your local dealer. New-car brokers advertise in magazines such as What Car? and are usually credit brokers too. They secure good prices because they're generally buying for fleets, but they need a deposit. Your transaction, however, is with the local dealer, not with the broker. All other new-car terms (warranty, servicing arrangements etc) apply.

The cars below aren't necessarily being officially offered at an N-Day discount, but by haggling you may be able to shave as much as 10 per cent off the manufacturers' list prices quoted here.

THE BRIGHTEST IN THEIR CLASS

BUDGET CAR (pounds 5,000-pounds 7,000)

Fiat Cinquecento SX: pounds 5,898.50

Looks like a biscuit tin and feels like being on a skateboard - but a sparkling town-dweller, safe handler and brilliant parker. Pretty, clever, agile, but hampered by a grim gearshift.

Skoda Felicia 1.3 LXi: pounds 5,949

Czech Skoda's most productive partnership with VW yet. Excellent value, surprisingly good handling, but a bit tinny and with a noisy engine. VW engines coming in the autumn.

Renault 5 Campus Prima: pounds 5,478

Last of the much-loved Renault 5 range. Not much kudos, but a snip at this price.

SUPERMINIS (under pounds l0,000)

Volkswagen Polo 1.3 CL: pounds 9,110

Excellent chassis, great appearance, very well built (the doors thunk like a Volvo's). Good specification, roomy. The supermini that sets the standard this year, and is in great demand. Discounts will be tight, because even used Polos are currently fetching more than the list price.

Fiat Punto 75SX: pounds 8,150

This is Fiat's version of the Tardis - like opening a shoebox and falling into Wembley Stadium. The roomiest car in this class, it has good storage, too, but power steering is only optional. Fine to drive, though, and good build quality.

Nissan Micra 1.3LX: pounds 8,600

A bit like an inverted bathtub, but a consistent prizewinner. Spacious, quiet, cheerful interior, relaxing to drive.

FAMILY SALOON (pounds 10,000-pounds 14,000)

Ford Mondeo Verona: pounds 12,390

Considered boring by some, the Ford Mondeo is success story in this class. The original was the nearest Ford to a BMW in its handling, with a driver's airbag as standard long before the rest of the herd. Now Ford is putting bells and whistles on it. The Verona is a high-spec special offer, with immobiliser, electric windows etc; there's a year's free insurance, also on the Mondeo LX (pictured above) and Si.

Citroen Xantia Dimension Special Edition: pounds 12,890

Luxury at a mid-market price: comfortable furniture, soft but not sloppy suspension, excellent equipment levels. And this turbo-diesel is one of the best diesels in the business. The Dimension Special Edition is an August offer, at pounds 765 less than the standard Xantia.

UPMARKET CAR (pounds 15,000-pounds 35,000)

Audi A4: pounds 17,200

This is the one I'd go for. It's Audi's first great mainstream car - and a true BMW competitor. Dependable to drive, and to inhabit. All but perfect in detail.

BMW 318i: pounds 17,000

A bargain BMW, with all the company's legendary handling talent. Not as urgent as the six-cylinder, and tight on leg room, but still very charismatic.

Jaguar XJS 3.2: pounds 28,950

Curvier and smoother in design than the original, even better on the road, some tweaking of a famous package. Still the bargain in this class for what you get, with traditional furnishing, purring power and classic lines.

Mercedes C180: pounds 18,500

This is Mercedes' giveaway model, at under pounds 20,000 - for which you get the same amazing build quality and refinement as higher up the range. Extras are astronomically priced, as with all Mercs, but depreciation is very slow. Dealers are supposed to be above haggling, but try it. Mercedes- Benz Finance may be more flexible than others with loan costs.

ESTATE

Volvo 850: pounds 18,500

The car that proves more than any other that estates can be both utilitarian and sexy. Volvo's move towards brisk performance has a lively engine - and it has only marginally less load space than the company's more hearse- like models.

Audi A6: pounds 29,000

One of the best combinations of handling and road behaviour with utility. Audi's celebrated leap forward with its A-series cars is just as apparent in the estate version.

Ford Mondeo 1.8 LX: pounds 14,000

The Mondeo saloon's agility only slightly blunted in this estate version. Ford's one-year free insurance deal also applies.

PEOPLE CARRIER

Toyota Previa 2.4 GL: pounds 20,699

The prettiest of the bunch, this Toyota Previa can swallow up eight passengers and baggage with ease. Noisy engine and plasticky interior, but a very well thought-out machine.

Mitsubishi Spacewagon 2.0 GLX: pounds 16,500

Most car-like of the spacewagons, but still very roomy - and flexible in its accommodation and storage space. Low-deposit finance offered in August, nothing more to pay until March 1996.

Renault Espace 2.0 RT: pounds 19,500

Seven-seater, pleasant inside and with a quiet engine. The exterior styling is a little more graceful than on previous models.

OFF-ROADER

Range Rover 4.0: pounds 32,400

In my view, the best off-roader. As good as upmarket saloons in terms of refinement. A re-styled classic with intelligent suspension, excellent performance - and a huge amount of space. On the down side, it is expensive.

Isuzu Trooper 3.2 Duty: pounds 18,650

Rugged, unlovely, practical, popular, reasonably priced - but a little prone to roll and bounce. Long warranty.

Mitsubishi Shogun 2.5 GLX: pounds 19,000

Very good in four-wheel drive use. Well equipped, pleasant to drive, practical.

CONVERTIBLE

Saab 900SE V6: pounds 28,300

Among the cabriolets, this one takes the biscuit. Much nicer-looking than a new series Saab 900, it's a huge success for the company. Easy hood, low noise, good performance.

Mazda MX5: pounds 15,000

Mazda's ever-popular "1960s Lotus" look - now safer and more agile. Price still very good for this class. Five-year/ 100,000-mile warranty offer on Mazdas in August, and lower-rate finance.

Peugeot 306 Cabrio: pounds 18,200

A little classic. Hood operation a cinch, handling remarkable. Just about a four-seater. Aesthetics untouchable.

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